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Intelligence on Steroids

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December 12, 2007

If the mantra of post-9/11 intelligence gathering is “to find a needle in a haystack, just make the haystack bigger,” we now present the Barry Bonds of haystacks.

Today, we released a report on Fusion Centers – state, local, and regional intelligence hubs that share information on “suspicious activity” with the federal government. Sharing intelligence about actual threats to public safety and national security is a legitimate, indeed a laudable goal for law enforcement, and some Fusion Centers appear to raise no red flags. Unfortunately, taken as a whole, the Fusion Centers bear the trademarks of virtually every homeland security initiative to come out of the Bush Administrations: they have no clear mission, operate under ambiguous lines of authority, and are cloaked in secrecy.

We still have much to learn about the centers, and to what extent they are spying in our neighborhoods. As one official described them to the Congressional Research Service, they are “state police intelligence units on steroids.” Thus, as they get bigger, they may be getting dumber – a problem both for the personal privacy of ordinary Americans and the need for effective national security.

Our report details what we do know about Fusion Centers so far: they often collect more information than they legitimately need for law enforcement, they exist in a legal and regulatory “wild west,” and they are engaging in dubious and invasive practices like data mining, which has been shown to be of limited application to counterterrorism.

Moreover, the Fusion Centers represent one piece of a larger drift toward a surveillance society, where all levels of government and private industry collude to watch our every move, record our every communication, and monitor our every transaction. The barriers to this new reality are no longer technological – whether we maintain a free society is now a question of our values, and how hard we’re willing to fight for them.